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Pew finds US Catholics diverge on many, but not all, issues

The Pew Research Center report looks at their views on Pope Francis, church changes, abortion and same-sex marriage
People participate in a service at the Reedy Chapel A.M.E. Church on June 19, 2022, in Galveston, Texas.

People participate in a service at the Reedy Chapel A.M.E. Church on June 19, 2022, in Galveston, Texas. (Photo: AFP)

Published: April 13, 2024 05:32 AM GMT
Updated: April 14, 2024 02:42 AM GMT

A new study of U.S. Catholics suggests that Mass attendance and political affiliation are associated with their views of Pope Francis and Catholic teaching on crucial moral issues.

The Pew Research Center released these findings on April 12 from a study that surveyed close to 12,700 respondents, 2,019 of whom self-identified as Catholic.

The sample was designed to be representative of the nation's self-identified Catholics, who constitute 20 percent of the U.S. population—about 52 million U.S. Catholic adults out of the 262 million adults counted by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2023.

Most (57 percent) of the nation's Catholics are white, while 33 percent are Hispanic, followed by Asian (4 percent), Black (2 percent) and Catholics of other races (3 percent). The racial and ethnic distribution of Catholics varies in the U.S., with greater numbers of U.S. Hispanic Catholics living in the South and West, where they respectively represent 40 percent and 55 percent of the Catholic population in those regions.

A majority of U.S. Catholics (58 percent) are age 50 and above, as compared to 48 percent of all U.S. adults in Pew's survey.

Hispanic Catholics tend to be significantly younger than white Catholics, with 57 percent of Hispanic Catholics under 50 as compared to 32 percent of white Catholics.

Regionally, 29 percent of U.S. Catholics live in the nation's South, 26 percent in the Northeast, 24 percent in the West, and 21 percent in the Midwest.

Pew found that nearly three in 10 (28 percent) U.S. Catholics reported attending Mass weekly or more often, similar to results reported by a recent Gallup poll in which 21 percent of U.S. Catholics said they attend weekly and 9 percent almost every week.

Daily prayer was reported by 52 percent of U.S. Catholics, while 46 percent described religion as "very important" in their lives. According to Pew, 20 percent of U.S. Catholics reported weekly Mass attendance, daily prayer and a regard for religion as "very important" in their life.

Politically, a majority of Catholic registered voters (52 percent) identify with or lean toward the Republican Party and 44 percent with the Democratic Party.

The data showed that 75 percent of U.S. Catholics regarded the pope favorably, down from 83 percent in 2021 and 90 percent in early 2015.

The report said that 89 percent of U.S. Catholics who are or lean Democrat approve of the pope, while just 7 percent disapprove of him. In contrast, just 63 percent of U.S. Catholics who are or lean Republican give the pope a thumbs-up, while 35 percent view him unfavorably.

Those unfavorable views among Catholics who are or lean Republican are higher than in 2018, the year a new wave of sex abuse scandals, including abuse accusations involving former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, broke out.

"The partisan gap in views of Pope Francis is now as large as it’s ever been in our surveys," said the report.

Despite the church's teaching against abortion, some six in 10 U.S. Catholics support legalized abortion in all or most cases, with Hispanic Catholics (63 percent) slightly more approving of keeping abortion legal in all or most cases than white Catholics (59 percent).

Those opinions about abortion "tend to align" with U.S. Catholics' political preferences, noted Pew, with 78 percent of Catholics who are or lean Democrat favoring legalized abortion in most or all cases less than 84 percent of U.S. adults who are or lean Democrat; and 43 percent of Catholics who are or lean Republican slightly favoring abortion compared to 40 percent of U.S. adults who are or lean Republican.

The survey also assessed U.S. Catholics' views on contraception, sexuality, and the priesthood and found "big differences between Mass-attending Catholics and those who don't [attend]" on those issues.

"Catholics who attend Mass regularly [once a week or more] are far more inclined than those who go less often to say the church should take a traditional or conservative approach on questions about the priesthood and sexuality," said the report.

Most weekly Mass attendees said the church should not recognize same-sex marriages (65 percent) or allow women to be ordained as priests (56 percent).

A majority of U.S. Catholics (69 percent) across the political divide -- including 53 percent of weekly Mass-attending Catholics -- said the church should "allow priests to get married."

The Pew survey question on this point, however, does not accurately distinguish between the normative practice in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches of ordaining married men to the priesthood on the one hand, and the churches' ancient prohibition on priests attempting marriage after ordination.

Although the Latin Church, which most Catholics belong to, only ordains celibate men with few exceptions and could legitimately change its discipline on the ordination of married men to align with the Eastern Catholic or Orthodox churches -- none of these churches allows priests to marry unless they are returned first to the lay state, rendering them no longer in a position of spiritual power over a lay woman whose full and free consent is necessary for sacramental marriage.

U.S. Catholics who do not attend Mass every week favored recognition of same-sex marriages (61 percent) and women's ordination (71 percent).

Broadly, 83 percent of U.S. Catholics surveyed said the church should permit the use of contraception, 75 percent said the church should permit the reception of holy Communion by unmarried couples living together and 54 percent said the church should recognize same-sex marriage.

Among Catholics who opposed deviating from church teaching on contraception, priestly celibacy, women's ordination, holy Communion for unmarried cohabiting couples and recognition of same-sex marriages, 59 percent said they attend Mass at least once a week, and 72 percent identify with or lean toward the Republican Party.

For those Catholics who said the church should permit the above practices, 56 percent reported seldom or never attend Mass, and 57 percent identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party.

Pew research associate Patricia Tevington told OSV News the report, for which she was one of three primary researchers, is intended to serve as "a descriptive source of information" rather than a causal analysis of the nation's Catholics and their characteristics.

"We try just to tell you what's going on," said Teverington. "If we can rule out explanations that might be obvious, we try to do so, but generally, we just ... give you the facts."

She said the data has been released publicly and can be downloaded from Pew's website so that other researchers "are able to run deeper analyses ... and make more causal arguments" about the results.

Still, Teverington said that the effects of political divides and weekly Mass attendance can be detected in the data.

"Political partisanship has definitely been ... increasing over time," she said. "And people [who] attend Mass weekly or more are definitely different than folks that attend less often."

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